Trump Tries to Present Himself as an International Dealmaker Before the Election

Experts say recent diplomatic wins in Sudan are timed to create an impression of high-level statecraft
October 21, 2020, 4:19pm
Sudanese people protest against Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan's meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump's Middle East plan, in Khartoum, Sudan.
Sudanese people protest against Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan's meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump's Middle East plan, in Khartoum, Sudan. Photo: Mahmoud Hjaj/Anadolu Agency via Getty Image

Donald Trump’s sudden announcement this week of a deal to remove Sudan from a terrorism blacklist, bringing the isolated country in from the cold in exchange for the payment of hundreds of millions in compensation to bombing victims, may have seemed to come from nowhere.

But to observers of the White House’s foreign policy movements, it was no surprise — just the latest in a flurry of recent diplomatic wins whose announcement is timed to create an impression of a string of statecraft successes ahead of next month’s presidential elections.

“This is entirely about domestic US optics,” Jason Pack, non-resident fellow at the Middle East Institute, tells VICE News. “But the optics are among the more successful things that the Trump administration has been able to achieve.”

The Sudan agreement, announced by Trump on Twitter this week as “GREAT news,” follows last month’s landmark US-brokered agreements in which the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain agreed to normalise ties with Israel, becoming the first Arab states in a quarter of a century to establish formal ties with the Jewish state.

That rapprochement progressed further Tuesday, when a UAE delegation arrived in Israel on the first official visit by a Gulf Arab nation, and formally invited its host to set up an embassy on its soil.

Under the US agreement with Sudan, the African nation of 42 million people will be removed from a list of countries that sponsor terrorism, in exchange for the payment of $335 million in compensation to the victims and families of more than 700 victims of Al Qaeda’s 1998 terrorist attacks on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

Sudan has been on the list since the 1990s when, under the rule of longtime dictator Omar al-Bashir, it harboured al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden between 1991 and 1996, and was found to have assisted terror groups.

Though it wasn’t mentioned in Trump’s announcement, the deal is also expected to lead to Sudan, whose transitional government operates under the patronage of the UAE, following the Gulf state’s lead in establishing official diplomatic relations with Israel.

Experts say the delisting announcement, which was welcomed by Sudan’s Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, represents a win-win for both Sudan and the Trump administration.

“It’s very much welcome and overdue that Sudan is removed from the state sponsors of terrorism list,” Ahmed Soliman, research fellow at the Chatham House international affairs think tank, tells VICE News.

He says the delisting wouldn’t help Sudan’s economy immediately, but would help the country with debt relief and international investment at a time it was battling a deepening economic crisis.

While Trump presented the Sudan agreement as a resounding triumph of his foreign policy ahead of the elections, analysts say it would be easy to overstate its significance.

Pack says the announcement so far lacks any specific commitments, and that the delisting of Sudan has already been somewhat inevitable ever since the ouster of Bashir last year. He says the agreement was doubly precarious — vulnerable to both upheavals within Sudan’s volatile domestic politics, and to a potential Biden victory next month, which may see a new president take a different view of the outsized regional influence of the UAE during Trump’s term.

“It’s just not a particularly big deal from a foreign policy perspective, because it doesn’t presage which way the transition will or will not go,” says Pack, adding that Trump’s bluster and lack of detail around his foreign policy moves reflected his past as a real estate tycoon.

“He talks it up: ‘We got it, we landed the deal.’ Whereas real world diplomacy is not like purchasing a condo building,” he says.

Pack says that Tuesday’s UAE-Israel embassy announcement was another example of the administration “dribbing and drabbing the optics out so it looks like more is happening.”

“The reality is this is all the same stuff that was just happening behind closed doors before,” he explains.

Soliman adds that the timing of the announcement was “convenient” for the Trump administration, who were “looking towards reelection and towards their own interest and wanting to show significant foreign policy success.”

“He framed the tweet as showing he could prioritise the interests of American citizens, and bring home successful deals for them in terms of reparations for past terrorist acts,” he says.

But analysts say the Sudan announcement – which was expected to lead to Sudan’s recognition of Israel – was part of a wider diplomatic offensive which had resulted in an unquestionable win for the Trump administration’s foreign policy: inducing Arab states to recognise Israel, fracturing their solidarity in support of the Palestinian cause in the process.

Aaron David Miller, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, tells VICE News that Trump has overturned the approach of previous administrations, which operated on the basis that other Arab states would recognise Israel after the Jewish state reached agreements with the Palestinians.

Instead, under the fiercely transactional Trump, the US has courted other Arab states directly, offering quid-pro-quo inducements including F-35s for the UAE, striking Sudan from the terror list, and essentially turning a blind eye to Saudi Arabia’s murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

“They weren’t prepared for how quickly the Arab states were prepared to untether themselves from the Palestinian issue,” Miller says.

Bill Roggio, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, agrees, telling VICE News that the UAE’s invitation to Israel to open an embassy on its soil was “stunning.”

“Now that Arab states are beginning to normalise relations with Israel, the Palestinians will be pressured to do so as well,” he says.

But experts doubt whether Trump’s efforts to present an image of a string of resounding wins on the world stage to American voters will shift the needle much with American voters in next month’s election.

Miller says Trump’s fortunes are unlikely to be buoyed by an agreement between the UAE and Israel, at a time when Americans are living through overlapping national crises.

“But in [the administration’s] minds, it’s a vindication, and in an election, who knows,” Miller says. “It’s another feather in the president's cap – you told me I couldn’t do it and I did it. They got their political win and that’s what they wanted.”